The very first time I helped someone with their English was back in South Africa while I was still a university student. The University, like most others, had international students form various countries, including Asia. The university’s EFL department asked for volunteer students just to hang out with some of the international students, so I volunteered, and was introduced to an Asian couple; a male student from mainland China, and a female student from Vietnam. They both spoke different first languages, with English as their lingua franca. We became friends at university, and I spent a fair amount of time with them, just talking about this and that in English, and sometimes helping them with their daily life on campus. I never thought that this experience would be the start of a long history of teaching English.
I always thought that being an English teacher would be an interesting job. After graduating from my hometown university in South Africa, and although I had a full-time job at an Auditing firm, I was looking for opportunities to go abroad, and was considering teaching English in China or Taiwan. But, being from South Africa, most places that needed English teachers were pretty far away. I couldn’t find anything I would be able to get into, mainly because of the distance and costs involved in application processes. Then I recalled once seeing a poster at university of a teaching program in Japan. I searched on the internet and found the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program. Two years after graduating I was on my way to Japan, having successfully completed the application process in my hometown.
I worked as an Assistant Language Teacher at Japanese public schools for five years. This involved working with students of all ages, from elementary to high school. I also did some English conversation lessons and cram school lessons. My first post was at the Tottori City Board of Education, which had me going to two junior high schools and several elementary schools in a week. I worked there for three years, then did an internal application for a post at a commercial high school, where I ended up teaching for two more years. My contract could only be extended for a maximum period of five years. At the moment I am negotiating a contract with a private high school, also in Tottori, Japan.
How was your teaching experience life-changing?
In my first year in Japan I attended a seminar where all the new English teachers received a lecture on culture shock form an American psychologist who was living and working in Japan. He told us that our experience of and in a foreign culture is extremely valuable, because it teaches us how reality could be constructed in a completely different way than the one we grew up with. Japan is in every way different from South Africa, and this firsthand understanding of a different culture and language has expanded my view and understanding of the world tremendously. Also, I didn’t plan on staying in Japan for so long, but ended up staying, getting married and having children!
What advice to you have for someone just starting out on the TEFL path?
You cannot go wrong. Any experience that you gain in a foreign country as an English teacher will make you a more rounded person. You learn to be more accepting of different point of views, more tolerant of other cultures, and your understanding of your own culture will grow much deeper, you learn to become a better communicator, you learn to be more adaptable, etc, all things that employers today seek in employees.
Also, teaching English could be a stepping stone to things you might never even have thought about. So it is important to always keep in mind that you might not choose to be an English teacher for the rest of your life, but the experience can lead to a vast number of other careers.
And lastly, if you find yourself in a foreign country for an extended period, do yourself a favor and learn the local lingo. If you are starting from zero, it will be difficult at first and it will not happen overnight, but doing a little bit each will pay off big eventually.